UFC 166: Sarah Kaufman and the Women's MMA Changing of the Guard

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UFC 166: Sarah Kaufman and the Women's MMA Changing of the Guard
Photo via Sherdog.com

It was less a scream and more a wail—Banshee-like, plaintive and haunting.

Roxanne Modafferi, beloved by MMA nerds around the world, had just fallen short against Jessica Rakoczy on The Ultimate Fighter. But her subsequent primal scream seemed like it was more than an expression of personal disappointment.

It was for all of us who have done our parts, big and small, to support women stepping into the cage and proving that they, too, can be fighters. It was a scream, not just for herself, but for all those who had walked the same path, working together to build the sport of women's MMA from the ground up.

Because Roxanne was not alone; One by one, the remaining pioneers of women's MMA were being picked off. And there wasn't anything they could do about it.

Before Modafferi's loss, Tara LaRosa also fell short, not even making it into the TUF house. That she had main-evented the first all-women's HOOKnSHOOT card more than a decade earlier in Evansville, Ind., didn't matter in the least. Today she was barely a blip on the radar, not even a real television moment.

The UFC and women's MMA steamrolled forward without her.

Shayna Baszler, the genius grappler and Josh Barnett-approved catch wrestler, likewise lost to Julianna Pena in her first TUF bout. Cocky in the way only really good, young fighters can be, Pena was self-assured, annoying—and awesome. She didn't just finish Baszler. She finished her with the kind of swagger that lets you know this wasn't her first rodeo—or her last.

Lest we forget, the last time we saw Pena's coach—former champion Miesha Tate—in the cage, it was with a busted nose and wild eyes, the victim of an unknown wrecking machine named Cat Zingano, Tate had no answer for a muscular fighter unimpressed with her pedigree or her magazine covers.

This was the new breed of women's MMA fighter. Younger, stronger, faster and preposterously confident, they are intent on making their names in the sport.

"It's everything that people in the sport knew that it would be," Sarah Kaufman told Bleacher Report. "The women put on amazing fights, fight-of-the-night fights. And almost every women's fight in the UFC has lived up to that. It's been amazing."  

You can see why, with all of this in her rear-view mirror, Kaufman might feel a little nervous heading into her UFC 166 fight with Bellator refugee Jessica Eye. A changing of the guard was taking place before her very eyes. And Kaufman, despite being just 28 years old, is most definitely a product of the old school.

"As the sport has grown, you're seeing more and more athletes getting into mixed martial arts and not just martial arts enthusiasts," Kaufman said. "I think that's what we're starting to see—the emergence of young, athletic future superstars. They've been able to pursue it from a young age knowing it's a valid option. If someone loves fighting, puts the time in, and has the talent and coaching, there's an option to make a viable career in MMA. And that's led to a different level of athlete coming into the sport."

But, while Kaufman recognizes the challenge in front of her with this new generation of fighter, she's not quite willing to throw in the towel just yet. Even the best athlete can be beaten by the right fighter with the right approach.

"There's a lot to be said for hard work and heart," she said. "You absolutely have to have the right skill set and be able to think on your feet. A pure athlete can't just go in there and do whatever they want. Someone who has that heart can win a lot of the time. Because there are a lot of people who don't like being pushed. Ultimately, fighting is a mixture of technique, heart and pure will to want to win and the endurance to do so."

Across the cage, Eye will be looking to depose the former Strikeforce bantamweight champion. Kaufman expects her to bring her best game—her opponents, she says, always seem to peak for their fights with her. But, either way, the two have an incredible opportunity to make an impact on a show filled top to bottom with great fights.

"It's incredible, from where we started, for young women to see that equality, to see us side-by-side with the guys in the UFC. And, at the end of the day, as the only female fighters on the card, we have a chance to really stand out," Kaufman said.

"That's extra special in the UFC, where it's hard to get noticed. You are a standout. You fly high or fall low, depending on how the fight goes. If it's a great fight, people are going to remember it. And if it's a bad fight people are going to remember it. More so than one of the 12 male fights on the card. Either way you're in the spotlight." 

 

Sarah Kaufman fights Jessica Eye on the Fox Sports 1 preliminaries at UFC 166. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. Unless noted, all quotes were gathered first hand.

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